The Experiment the Variable and the Rule of Three

In item #1, above, I suggested you could repeat virtually the whole situation with just one significant change. I'll explain a little more what that involves.

In a scientific experiment, a researcher will generally have two groups: the test group, and the control. Both groups are as identical as it's possible to make them, and they're treated exactly the same, except for one item—the thing that's being investigated, altered with the test group to find out what effect that single change will have. Whatever difference there is in the two groups at the conclusion of the experiment will presumably be caused by the one thing that was different—the variable.

This is the basis of countless folk tales involving three related individuals in similar circumstances. The first one leaves home, is rude to the ugly old witch, and is turned into stone. The second one leaves home, is rude to the ugly old witch, and ditto. But the third one leaves home, shares his baloney sandwich with the old witch, and gets tons of gold and jewels, a magic ring for warding off dragons, and makes a royal marriage.

Recognize the pattern? It's Cinderella and her wretched stepsisters. It's three little pigs, building houses of straw, sticks, and solid wolf-proof bricks. It's the three bears.

Why all this fuss about threes?

One is an incident. Two is a pattern. Three breaks it.

One tells us what the risk is. Two confirms what wrong behavior is. At three, we know the rules, and so can appreciate what the smart third person is doing differently, to break the unsuccessful pattern and win.

If that folk tale was aboutjust one pig who built a house of bricks in the first place, and the wolf couldn't get in no matter how he huffed and puffed, where would the story be? Conflict, but no drama, just stalemate. Success for the pig, but no suspense. Anticlimax. No story.

Three is suspense, pattern, and contrast, all in one nifty little technique as old as storytelling.

It's the scientific technique of the variable, with third time lucky.

If somebody fails twice, in similar circumstances, there's going to be more tension and drama when he tries the third time because we've already seen him fail and know it can happen. We know what doesn't work, we know the situation; now we're focusing on what he's doing differently this time. We're aware of the pattern, the apparent rules, and are concentrating on the one thing that changes.

Instead of two repetitions, you can use the Rule of Three. The first time the bell coincides with the painful electric shock, you're too busy being shocked to notice. The second time, you think uneasily that maybe it wasn't a coincidence. The third time, you've started jumping before the bell is even done ringing.

If you want your reader interested and involved in the scene before it's fully begun to happen, there's nothing like a triple setup to get things rolling. It gives added drama. It directs the reader's attention where you want it directed. And it makes the scene's meaning clear in a way it could not have been in isolation.

Choose and control the variable with care, keep the situations visibly comparable so the reader will be aware of the bell/ shock pairing and be anticipating the outcome, and all three scenes will gain in impact and effectiveness.

Or, in Henny Youngman's memorable phrase, "You had it before? Well, you got it again."

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